What’s going wrong in Christchurch?

The NZ Government has finally released their plans for a solution to the temporary housing problems affecting residents after the February 22 Earthquake.    The announcement is proof that the Government is successfully doing a miraculous job of delivering housing that is expensive, slow and low quality.  There is a well known management triangle  for project delivery that states that projects can be quick, cheap and good quality, but can only be two of these.  The government is proving innovative in its ability to fail at all three.  Lets look at this in detail.

Low quality design.

The design above is ripped from the article here on stuff is by one of the three official suppliers NZ Transportable Units who normally build cottages for farms and granny flats.   While the proposals will no doubt pass the low requirements on detailing and materials embedded in the NZ Building codes the above 10 x 5 design quickly reveals some peculiar planning.

  • no laundry,
  • it appears that the kitchen is completely walled in,
  • you can’t get to the 2nd bedroom without climbing over the couch,
  • the master bedroom 3/4 the length of the single bed,
  • inefficient separation of kitchen and bathroom plumbing.


Each of these units is going to cost $85,00o, which might sound cheap for a house over ones head.  However, this unit is only 50 square metres. That’s a square metre rate of $1,700.   I recently saw an ad in Melbourne for a 456m2 house for $477,000 costing $1056 per square meter.  If we include the dollar difference that means the so called ‘Emergency’ Housing been proposed for Christchurch is twice as expensive as cheap housing in Melbourne suburbs.   The Government has set aside $38 million to cover the construction costs, however families will be charged between $170 and $336 per week to live in the houses, and will have to pay for their own installation costs if on their own land.   In Japan families have been given rent free use of the accommodation for two years.  The median income in New Zealand is around $33,000 per year, or around $667 per week.   Housing Stress or rent related economic pressure is said to become critical when a family spends more than 1/3 of their income on the housing.    So its clear that for many families with multiple dependents living around or below median income in NZ the rental prices being charged by the government for these houses will add to their pressures and problems rather than alleviate them.


In Japan construction of temporary housing had started within two weeks of the disaster, in New Zealand it is now over two months and contractors for the job have only just been announced.   Show homes are promised to be constructed by mid may,  10-12 weeks after the disaster and still weeks and months away from the actual housing.  Japan is heading towards summer and Christchurch is heading towards what promises to be a cold and dark winter.


The source of this mismanagement is two fold.  Firstly I think the Government and the contractors are missing the crucial difference between Emergency housing and reconstruction. Emergency housing is often expensive but needs to be quick and the requirements are ones of shelter and safety.  Reconstruction is usually quite slow, can be cheaper if well thought out,  but needs to address future community needs and engage with proper planning and community involvement.  The proposed house designs are just low quality versions of what is built for permanent use in NZ and this doesn’t seem to suit anyone much. The second problem is a cultural and leadership one that sees no potential for innovation. It illustrates not only a complete lack of imagination, but also an ideology that is resistant to using expertise and international precedent.  NZ ran a state housing design competition in 2009 with many interesting and well thought through proposals which are now begin ignored. Is a nation with the technological skills to lead the world in movie making and boat design really incapable of producing anything more than the dreary and depressing designs currently proposed?






15 Replies to “What’s going wrong in Christchurch?”

  1. This is actually heartbreaking. Aside from the horrendous lack of thought in the whole process, there are literally thousands of trained and qualified designers in NZ who could probably do a better job of designing a cheap, simple box, that actually works, AND presenting it like it might actually be an okay place for a family to live. These look like those images that get leaked, and then embarrassingly retracted by the author as an ‘early draft’. Did they draw it with ClipArt? While waiting in the queue at the bank?
    Another critical flaw is that the main ‘living room/entry’ has no conceivable way to set up a TV, and actually sit facing it.
    The plan comes from NZ Transportables [http://www.nztransportables.co.nz/portapad/plans?start=2] who offer a range of similar models. About them:
    “After selling their earth moving business in 2007, Russell and Angela Heenan were pondering what business they would explore next. Angela had wondered about the idea of building handy accommodation units that were not cabins but more like small homes. They needed to be easily and economically transported to make them accessible to people, and also have a sense that they were a solid home, built of timber and fitted out with taste. So out of Russell’s experience in earthmoving and building and Angela’s “woman’s touch”, their first “transportable rental unit” was born in the barn located on their rural block in Whitford.”
    I feel a bit unkind targetting these individuals, when the greater consortium is collectively responsible.

  2. “AUCKLAND, New Zealand, Apr. 21 /Medianet International-Asianet

    New JV Wins NZ Government Tender for Christchurch Temporary Housing

    A joint venture of FRAMECAD and NZ Transportable Units has been awarded a major tender issued by the New Zealand Department of Building and Housing. The tender requires the construction of 300 temporary accommodation units for those affected by the Christchurch earthquake of 22nd February this year.

    Out of 226 tender submissions, FRAMECAD’s joint venture with NZ Transportable Units Limited was one of the three successful proposals.”

    226 tender submissions?! And this was in the top 3…

    Idealog Magazine published an article on local (Chch) initiatives after the september earthquake –> http://idealog.co.nz/magazine/32/after-shock

    The event based responses show haste and imagination to reinvigorating the city centre (though at a scale which, by lack of proper support, is disappointingly limited) However some of the more “Architectural” ideas presented are less than enticing as realistic proposals…

    Thats all.

  3. No, Byron I don’t think we should design something. Our job here is to point out the shitness of the current proposals. The design of these emergency houses, like the reconstruction and re-planning of Christchurch deserver propes processes with stake holder consultation, and thorough design work. Designers have got to get away from this knee jerk, ‘I can design better than that’, response. These crappy designs are the outcome of a shitty process, and I don’t know if us drawing up better designs is going to improve that.

  4. Let us architects that still have a roof over their heads, NOT be so errogant. Poor design or not, this is a solution that CAN and WILL happen. I’m sure everyone whos house are completely destroyed and have no where to go, will absolutely love these.

  5. True, I was jerking. And Sam has a point too, but its a point which I think some processes take advantage of, particularly commercially driven ones, which are making these solutions and the Caravan one unaffordable, AND crap.

      1. I agree these are not good design solutions and the idea of selling our culture back to us like this is infantile not to mention discusting. I also agree with Byron, they appear to be the direct results of poor process. I am not an archiect but I know slack design when it is presented. Wont the kitchen-bathroom proximity be illegal..? or will new acts be passed through Govt to give a little slack.

        I note the client will pay for the cost of installment on their own property, pay rent(to whom? the supplier?), then when no longer needed the supplier will sell the unit – possibly as a sleep out if the client wants. I find all this too disturbing and abusive.

  6. The Melbourne comparisons is misleading. You’recomparing mansions with a lot of cheap, useless space with a high-density design which has most of the expensive bits and none of the cheap bits. Swap the kitchen for an atrium and the cost would drop (and cost per metre would drop a lot). And at least it’s insulated, which is a huge step up from many new, cheap places. Also, transferable costs.
    But it is a really bad layout. And slow.
    For comparison, a decent 120m relocatable in Melbourne costs $150k or more. Even 60m is $80k ish

  7. Personally I think there is a fair amount of room for improvement – basic moves to save money, waste and to allow these units to be used more flexibly. I think we can afford to aim a little higher than this crap.

    However, the NZIA has just been picking around in their belly-button lint – extolling the virtues of AAArchitect led design (see the exhibition released momentarily before the second quake) and regurgitating PR versions of urban theory.

    The complete lack of any support for genuine community based dialogue (see Ideas for CHCH) is perhaps the most worrying.

  8. This makes me feel very sad. Why is some ‘GJ kenny sheds’ outfit being contracted to undertake such important work, in a country where we have a surplus of qualified designers/architects? I have to agree that we all know we can design something better, but the problem is who the opportunities are given to.

    I also completely agree that it is a crappy solution for emergency housing AND/OR reconstruction. Such short-sightedness is so prevalent in NZ that it forms part of our identity.

    If this is representative of the what’s going on down there I hate to think what’s in store on an urban scale?

    Really, really interesting post (blog all-round).

  9. Another thing to get you all thinking, and questioning the governments decision. My friend has a unit built by NZ Transportables approx 8 months ago, she has interior walls bowing so badly you can’t even push furniture up against it, the shower has had to pulled out as it was incorrectly installed, some of the exterior cladding is comming off as it hasn’t been nailed on correctly …… etc etc. She has been waiting for months for the repair to be done but keeps getting excuses. I thought the government had checked out the suppliers, i have also heard of some other units up north that the same things are happening too also built by NZ Transportables Ltd. These guys are cowboys in my opinion !!

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